Addressing the gender balance. Again.

Bringing more women back into the square mile seemed to be the theme of the day yesterday.

Two reports published yesterday talk about bringing in incentives to bring more women into the city – one was an article published in City AM about bringing women into finance; and the other, published on The Lawyer, reports that Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP) has joined the growing number of firms setting a target for female partnership representation, aiming for 30 per cent of its partnership by the end of 2018.

So what’s going on? Where are all the women in finance and law?

Anne Richards, Chief Investment Officer at Aberdeen Asset Management, is quoted in the City A.M. article saying ‘it’s shocking, awful. Since 2008 it has got worse. As an industry we’ve managed to deter a chunk of half of the population. We’ve got to get that sorted.”

She says that despite girls coming through university in greater numbers than boys, with better results, as soon as they get to the workplace their progress slows.

This sentiment is echoed by the Women in London Law network that was set up earlier this month in London by five associates who are taking law firm gender balance into their own hands.

Their website (www.womeninlawlondon.com) says that for the past 20 years, women have accounted for over one half of new entrants to the legal profession.  As at July 2013, the proportion of female solicitors holding practising certificates was 47.3%. However, despite these positive statistics, the proportion of women in partnership in 2013 was still only at 17.6%.

They go on to say “these figures make clear that whilst there are healthy entry levels for women in the profession, women are simply not staying in private practice to reach partnership. They fare better in in-house positions, but the imbalance at senior levels remains. The reality is that the profession is losing talented women and the trend is not reversing at a sufficient rate.”

And it is true to say women do better at in house positions – a report entitled The role of in-house solicitors conducted by Oxera and published for the Solicitors Regulation Authority in February this year found that in September 2012 when the surveys were done, of the 25 602 lawyers working in-house, 56% of these were women.

Going back to BLP story, their employment head Lisa Mayhew is reported in The Lawyer as saying, “It’s [about] catching them early and it’s talking to the female talent about the opportunities that they have to be promoted and becoming a partner in our firm. You shouldn’t self select out.”

So what is BLP doing to change the situation and reach the 30% target?

According to the report BLP is putting in place a range of measures to try and improve its diversity statistics, including mentoring and flexible working.

Lisa Mayhew says “In large part it will be organically-driven but we’re talking to headhunters about the goal that we have and asking them to focus on female talent in the areas that we’re recruiting in.”

Interestingly, Anne Richards from Aberdeen Asset Management, who was quoted at the start of the this article, also proposes going back to the recruitment process to sort this problem out.  However her suggestions are more about anonymizing the process instead of actively focussing on female talent.

Richards’ ideas are to firstly get more data to analyse where firms are going wrong with female staff. Secondly to remove names and other identifying features from CVs and thirdly to find words and pictures in job adverts that do not repel women candidates.

Well this all makes fine reading, but in the end I wonder if its what women actually want?

I refer to an article published in 2011 on a blog called www.women2.com. Here the writer Tara Hunt  who is Co-Founder and CEO Buyosphere, picks up on a tweet made by Jolie O’Dell, a former tech journalist based in San Francisco.

“Women: Stop making startups about fashion, shopping, & babies. At least for the next few years. You’re embarrassing me.” 7.34pm – 13 Sep 2011

Twitter screen grab

Tara Hunt picks up the trend that whatever women tend to do professionally whether it is to become a doctor, a lawyer, an entrepreneur, the anecdotal evidence would suggest that women opt for the softer options.

She says “as the number of women doctors grew, there was (and still is) an outcry because female physicians outnumber male physicians in pediatrics and female residents outnumber male residents in family medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, pathology, and psychiatry.

I’ve heard the same said about women lawyers: they pick ‘softer’ forms of law to pursue such as non-profit, family, government and general practices. Women are less likely to run a firm or become partners at a firm and more likely to be in-house counsel.”

Hunt goes on to say that what she’s  most concerned about is the sentiment around the decision to pursue more feminized versions of these professions. The feminine itself is negatively valued.
So what should it be?

If we followed Hunt’s line of thinking, then painting a job as more attractive to women, or using a better copywriter when advertising the job is not going to change a woman’s mind.

If we want more women on boards, as partners in law firms, as leaders in society and in business then perhaps its about changing not only the culture and perception of what these roles are, but what they roles really are.

 

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